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Imagine being a five-year-old again. Imagine that you have been living with extended relatives all of your life, and one day they put you on a plane and send you halfway around the world to meet your parents in another country.

Imagine being brought to a school the following week, unable to speak the language being spoken. Everything is new - even your name because the children and teachers at your new school couldn’t pronounce your old one. 

One of our writers tells this story from the teacher’s perspective. She received an ESL student with a similar backstory a few years ago.

Here are some tips for how to work with brand new ESL students with zero English skills and who don’t even know their names yet. 

Most Important Words

In this situation, you’ve got to teach this student some survival words for those first few days together.
1. their name in English (if they don’t know it)

  1. yes and no
  2. stop
  3. sit
  4. bathroom
  5. drink

The reason for the first one is obvious. You’ll need to get their attention. Names are important.

Secondly, if you are teaching small children, they have got to hear “no” and know what it means - especially if they are feisty little firecrackers who love to wiggle and have never been with so many children in their lives. School is VERY exciting! 

Even older ESL and ELL students need to know “yes” and “no”. They have to be able to communicate what they will or will not do. They have to be able to know how to let someone know what they want or do not want.

“Stop” is very important, as well. It can be handy for a teacher if the student is wandering off, if they are annoying people around them, or if they want to communicate their own boundaries.

“Sit” is good for little ones. Most older students already know what to do in a school setting. Small children may have no context. If you can get them to sit down, you’ve already won half the battle.

“Bathroom” and “drink” are very important words for them to be able to use as they are the most likely needs they will be asking others permission to take care of right off the bat.

If you have a zero-English learner, these are the first things they need to know.

A Very Good Place to Start

No matter the age of the student, the first place for them to start learning the language is by introducing the English alphabet. Depending on their first language, they may be pretty familiar with the idea. You can compare and contrast letter names and sounds if their alphabet is similar.

Next, you’ll want to start building basic vocabulary.

Have another student, a volunteer, or a paraprofessional walk with the student through the school, practicing words like door, window, bathroom, cafeteria, hallway, playground, etc…

For the sake of safety, these words are very helpful to begin with because you can communicate what is okay to do (yes) and not okay to do (no!).


Language learning is very dependent on nonverbal communication. When you don’t have a common language, you’re reduced to using body language and signals you invent and agree to on the spot in order to communicate (which is surprisingly fun, but also very challenging).

TPR stands for “total physical response”, and it uses the idea we talk about a lot in our posts. To learn something new, students need to be using their eyes, ears, voices, and bodies. When you teach students a new vocabulary word, add a movement or something concrete for meaning.

Give Them a Language Break

Hearing a language you don’t understand all day is absolutely exhausting, especially when you don’t have many visual aids or someone to interpret for much of the time. Give students a break when they seem overwhelmed or frazzled. 

You might even consider allowing them to wear noise-canceling headphones and some music that’s either classical or in their language. 

Here’s a music hint for young ones: Disney has music in just about every language, and many of the movies that come out here also are shown in other countries and in the languages your students are familiar with. We found that to be a great way to spark familiarity among students. Let the whole class sing familiar songs in English and the student’s first language! 

Expect Weird Things to Happen

If a student is new to the U.S., they may be in total culture shock. There may be all sorts of new things they’ve never seen or used before, especially if they are young.

One of our teachers had the greatest time trying to communicate with her students about how to drink from a water fountain. It’s quite challenging without words!

Another teacher had a brand new student who experimented most with the cafeteria food. The student tried mustard on cereal, in milk, on fruit, and on hamburgers. They also mixed ketchup and pudding, dipped french fries in water, and tried pizza dipped in applesauce! The student was very creative with their food, and the other students thought it was weird, but the new kid loved having a lot of interesting and new culinary delights!

Keep in mind that ELL students new to the country are having to become familiar with not only a new language but a whole new culture. That kind of immersion is likely to bring out the curiosity in anyone!

It can also be intimidating and overwhelming, though, so be sensitive to their needs. 

Translation Devices, Apps, and Other Aids

Ideally, full immersion is the best way for someone to learn a new language. Sometimes, though, either the student or the teacher really needs to communicate something important right away.

The first choice should always be a human translator. Even an older sibling or another student who speaks the same language can be helpful. That isn’t always available, though.

Google has a translator that you can speak into in one language, and then play the translation in the language of your choice. It isn’t always accurate, though. You might end up telling your Chinese student to eat blue crayons when you’re trying to tell them to “color the car in the picture blue” (we totally never had that experience, we’re just making it up…).  If you use the translator and the student looks at you like you’ve grown an extra eyeball, chances are you need to say it in a different way and hope for a better outcome next time. 

Sometimes, a good way to make the transition is to make or buy flashcards with important words in both languages. Many sellers have these sorts of cards available on Teachers Pay Teachers or other sites with educational materials.

One hint for this: it doesn’t matter how old your student is. Beginning ESL is beginning ESL. It usually starts with the alphabet, most vital words, then moves to verbs, followed by nouns. Describing words are after nouns, verbs, and beginning sentence structure.

So if you look for flashcards for a Kindergartener who speaks Russian and is learning English, you’ll likely buy the same tools you would for a high schooler in the same position. 

If you want to make your own labels and flashcards yourself, ask mom, dad, or another adult relative who speaks both languages to come to the school for a few hours one evening and help you.

For instructions and commands (“write, color, cut, and glue”; “pack your bag”; “line up”), having the words in English only is fine as long as there is a clear picture that indicates what the student needs to do. 

Also, consider offering the student a ring with pictures corresponding with English words so they can show the card to get something they need. For example, if your student is young and may need their shoe tied, have a card with a shoe, an arrow to a shoelace, and the words “Will you tie my shoe?” or simply “shoe tie”.

Other teachers or adults that know your student and their situation can be told about the cards so that if they need anything added to the ring, you can do that. Teachers can turn to the picture to communicate to the child, as well. So a teacher might see the student’s shoe untied and point to the shoe tying picture above, signalling that the child should tie their shoe. 

These cards are transition tools, so use them only long enough for the student to show what they need and practice using the corresponding English phrases. 

Enjoy the Funny Things

Embrace the fact that through your nonverbal language, your attempts to communicate are going to create some misunderstandings and funny moments.

The teacher we wrote about at the beginning of the article somehow communicated that the student should call her “Baby Bus”, and for the rest of the year, she (the teacher) became Mrs. Baby Bus. The other children joined in.

Mrs. Baby Bus was fine with it.

That same student would get so tired of hearing English after half a day, he’d lock himself in the in-class bathroom and sing at the top of his lungs in his first language for about 30 minutes a day for the first four months or so.

Expect quirky things. Enjoy the novelty. You’ll have lots to talk about when their English is improved! 

After a while, teachers and students will sometimes start to communicate with each party speaking his or her own language, and everyone understands each other. It won’t make sense to anyone else but you and the students in your class, so it’s like you’ve made your own language in the “between places” that exist in understanding outside of actual words.

The Silent Period

After a while, the novelty wears off. It is very common for ELL students to arrive at a silent period as they are learning English. They may seem more somber and become even more unwilling than usual to participate in things. They are watching, listening, and learning, though. 

Typically, after a silent period, language ability catapults, so just hang on and keep speaking.

Don’t Assume Anything

One ESL teacher told us about a family who scheduled a conference right away so they could touch base with the teacher about their pre-k child. “She doesn’t know any English at all, so you’ll have to start from the beginning. Make sure she goes to the bathroom and eats her food at lunch. She might not want to or know what you’re saying at first, but please keep trying,” they told the teacher through a family member who was translating.

A few days later, the little student was playing in an animal center and walked up to the teacher. “Look!” she said, holding some toy alligators. “I have seven alligators! This is the mommy, this is the auntie, and these are their children! I have so many alligators!” 

The teacher exploded with laughter and said, “I’m sorry, you just surprised me! Your mommy told me you didn’t speak any English!”

“Well, I don’t speak English to my mommy! She doesn’t know any either!” 

Sometimes you have to go straight to the source to get the most accurate information.

Student Instruction

One of our teachers taught a sweet student for three years in elementary school. By the third year, the student was speaking fairly fluently, so the teacher asked, “When did you know you were really speaking English well?”

He answered, “When I started dreaming in English, I knew I finally understood it and could speak in a way that other people could understand me.”

It can be scary to be in a new country, in a place that’s so unfamiliar to you, and surrounded by a culture you don’t understand. Making small connections with these ESL and ELL learners creates a special bond between you and them. 

Keep trying and teaching until their dreams change. 

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